Shoegaze, Nu-gaze, Blackgaze; Chillwave, New Wave, Doritos Chilli Heatwave. As prefixes and suffixes are constantly added to help you make sense of your latest Garageband product, it does not come without ridicule. It is far better to be tolerable than trendy, so when asked “what music are you into?” it may be preferable to answer with “Oh everything… Except country” -rather than “circa-1991 shoegaze”. The term ‘shoe gaze’ itself was originally a mockery of the incoming bands with hair to their chins and eyes fixed to their guitar pedals below, but its ‘golden age’ has largely been considered to have only spanned a year. With the release of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Lush’s Spook this shortly-lived ‘scene that celebrated itself’ was one of the finest and most miraculous moments in recent British musical memory. Despite being nudged over hastily by the bourgeoning of Britpop in 1994, it has seen somewhat of a resurgence recently with Slowdive’s comeback tour and ‘Ride’ peppered on many festival posters this year. At its time, Shoegaze was an apolitical blank. It found itself sandwiched between the working-class efforts of the Madchester scene and the class struggles narrated by an array of regional accents in Britpop. In a country whose most lionised bands are so for their rugged Britishness and songs concerning life in Britain, the Shoegazers were glaringly un-British.
On my first listen of Ride’s 1990 record, Nowhere, I imagined sleepy limbs walking the Nevada desert, infinite horizons turned to pink bokehs from exhaustion. Oceans big enough to be forgotten in, the beginning of time, kisses as big as America. It was like having everything I’d ever felt squashed together and presented to me, saying: “this is your life.” Instead, I found that they came from the skimpy city of Oxford and were made famous in my homecity, Reading. The little city that had always bored me somehow heralded the most exciting music I had heard. My Bloody Valentine played the first show of their Loveless tour at Reading University and Shoegaze greats Chapterhouse and Slowdive too originated from Reading. The Face even talked of a ‘Thames Valley Scene’ which encompassed the bands who created sonic cathedrals, making it mandatory for audience members to wear earplugs. These were bands that dismantled the expectations of songs and made the musician-listener relationship interactive. By stripping away the traditional verse-chorus-verse architecture, they made music comprised of hints and impressions. The lyrics are almost wordless and watery, the instrumentation whirls together in its indecipherable maelstrom and the listener is left to fill in the gaps. It is like no other musical experience — it is miraculous.
Shoegaze was quickly forgotten with the arrival of Britpop, and the much needed return to music of the working-class was reaffirmed. Journalist David Quantick wrote a satirical column each week entitled, “Memoirs of a Shoegazing Gentleman” which portrayed Shoegazers as overripe aristocrats. British music was once again made a class issue. Those who had struggled most under the Thatcherite government came to the forefront in the form of Britpop and Shoegaze was satirised into non-existence. But for that brief moment it was extraordinary – Shoegazers could create that bigger-than-Britain sound from the ennui of the middle-class.